Afghan Women Remind World Leaders: Don’t Forget Us

Afghanistan’s president has asked for international aid until 2030—well past the 2014 date on which American troops are scheduled to exit. What does it mean for women?

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

A decade ago, the Bonn conference in Germany heralded the international community’s entrance into Afghanistan at a time of optimism that much could be done to better the war-scarred country’s fortunes. On Monday, nearly 1,000 delegates from more than 80 nations returned to Bonn to chart a much quieter exit, with U.S. and international troops scheduled to leave in 2014.

Foremost on the Bonn agenda: security handovers to Afghan leadership between now and the troops’ departure date, along with the faltering peace process and the shape and size of international assistance to Afghanistan after 2014. President Hamid Karzai reportedly asked world leaders for financial assistance until 2030.

Amid the discussion of Afghanistan’s future, many wondered where, exactly, women fit in it. World leaders talked about women’s rights in Afghanistan a great deal in 2001, but rarely bring up the topic now.

Afghan women leaders worked hard to put pressure on both their government and the international community to make sure they had a voice at the Bonn summit. As a result, a third of the 40 delegates from Afghanistan to the event were women. These women regularly say that they want and welcome peace, but they do not want it at the cost of their right to work and go to school.

“There have been countless numbers of resolutions, laws, policies, action plans and strategies to empower the women of Afghanistan, but the track record for their implementation remains appalling,” activists from the Afghan Women’s Network wrote in a position paper in the lead-up to the event.

Women have made progress. Since 2001, more than 2 million girls have begun going to school, and more than 3,000 midwives have been accredited in a country that is among the world’s deadliest to be an expectant mother. Women make up nearly a third of members of Parliament, with help from quotas, and serve in small numbers in the police and Army. Women also work as lawyers, teachers, civil-society activists, and entrepreneurs. The country has a female governor in Bamiyan and a female chief prosecutor in the western province of Herat.

But there’s a long way to go. Last week a story about an Afghan woman who was in prison for the “moral crime” of being raped made international headlines—when the woman was pardoned by the president, on the condition that she marry her rapist. In Afghanistan, sex outside of marriage, even in the case of rape, is considered a moral crime, punishable by prison and, in some areas, by death.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters on the sidelines of the Bonn event, “Women and civil society have achieved considerable progress over the last 10 years, and we don’t want anything that we agree to or do to undermine that progress, or to turn the clock back on human rights for women and men.” Clinton has pledged repeatedly to Afghan women that “we will not abandon you," but the reality of that promise may be tested in the coming months, as the international community hunts for a peace deal that will allow it a graceful exit from the decade-long war.

Noticeably absent from Monday’s diplomatic reunion was Afghanistan’s critical neighbor Pakistan, which withdrew in protest of a NATO airstrike that killed more than 20 Pakistani soldiers. (The attack’s details continue to be disputed by NATO and Pakistani officials.) Afghan President Karzai is said to have called Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to urge his country to take part in Bonn, but the country pledged to stay away.

No Taliban leaders attended the one-day Bonn assembly, despite efforts from international officials to reach out to them and other antigovernment forces in recent months. The recent assassination of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who headed Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, only served to reinforce the impression among peace-negotiation skeptics that the Taliban and forces aligned with them are hardly interested in a deal.

“If you want to resolve a conflict, then you have to sit across a table and talk with people whose views are often very different from yours,” Clinton said in Bonn on Monday. “But I believe that Afghan society and the work that has been done over the last 10 years puts Afghanistan in a strong position to determine what is and is not acceptable. And it would certainly be unacceptable to me, not just as an American, but if I myself were an Afghan woman, it would be unacceptable to me if any negotiation sacrificed my human rights, and I personally would oppose that.”